San Jose, Costa Rica’s Christmas celebrations are already off to a fine start, now that the Festival de la Luz (Festival of Lights) hasluminated the capital with glowing floats and electric live performances. Sure, Christmas itself is a bit more low-key here than in the USA or Europe; businesses usually shut down early on Christmas Eve, so friends and families can enjoy a festive evening and Midnight Mass, with most opening up again Christmas afternoon or the following day.
This isn’t to say, however, that the Costa Rican capital doesn’t celebrate the season in style. The second-largest party in the country begins the day after Christmas in San Jose: Las Fiestas de Zapote.
The fiestas begin with the Tope Nacional, an equestrian exhibition that dates back to colonial times. In Costa Rica, the word “tope” refers to horse parades, which take place across the country during each city’s civic fiestas, held (nominally) in honor of the town’s patron saint.
The National Tope is Costa Rica’s biggest and best, featuring – among other breeds – the sturdy, graceful Costa Rican Saddle Horse, developed here in the 1800s and now among the most prized mounts in Central America.
But that’s just to get the party started. The Fiestas de Zapote run through January 2, bringing in party people from around Costa Rica, as well as a few interested travelers. Carnival rides and games, handcrafts stands, great live music, all-night dance parties, special Masses, and lots of heavy drinking – sales of guaro (the strong national spirit) double during the festivities, attended by some 100,000 each day. And night.
The highlight for most fiesteros are the bullfights, which are more like “bull teasers” in Costa Rica. Unlike the bloody spectacles you might see in Spain, Costa Rican bullfighting is absolutely safe for the prize-winning bull placed in the ring.
After he arrives, pawing and snorting, scores of men (and sometimes a few women) jump into the ring and begin taunting the bull – pulling his tail, trying to touch his massive bulk – to the wild cheers of the crowd. The bull is rarely hurt; humans, on the other hand, are regularly wounded and occasionally killed in the ring. Ah, the simple pleasures of a less litigious society!
Can’t make it? The Fiestas Palmares, the largest festival in Costa Rica, runs from January 9 to 22, 2012; here you’ll enjoy even more topes, corridos, live music, carnival games and other fun. But ask around any time of year – there may well be other civic fiestas, much smaller but with topes and bullfights aplenty, happening within a few kilometers of your favorite vacation spot.